African American Families


Angela J. Hattery & Earl Smith

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  • Dedication

    For Travis and Emma: May you make the world a better place than the one you inherited.


    To my collaborator, colleague, and friend, Earl.

    Thanks for bringing your intellectual curiosity and your vast knowledge of social theory, the African American family, prisons, and so many other areas to bear on this project. Mostly, thank you for all the times I needed to laugh so that I wouldn't cry. I never could have done this without you.


    To my adult sons Daniel and Edward, may you as well make the world a better place than the one you inherited. Please note we did the best we could. Always strive for the best, because it is there for you. To my coauthor, colleague, and friend, Angela, thanks. You made this project and from interview to interview, from airport to airport (including the almost mandatory plane delays), thank you for including me in this research. You are an excellent teacher, scholar, and intellectual.



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    Brief Table of Contents


    An overwhelming number of young African American males … are committed to civility and law-abiding behavior. They often have a hard time convincing others of this, however, because of the stigma attached to their skin color, age, gender, appearance, and general style of self-presentation.

    —Anderson (1990), p. 163

    Based on the experiences of prior researchers, the lack of contemporary research, and the reviews of our own book manuscript, we can, with confidence, claim that studying the African American family today remains ferociously contentious. Our attempts to engage difficult and controversial topics ranging from intimate partner violence to HIV to teen pregnancy are made more difficult by the fact that open communication about race in the contemporary United States remains taboo.

    One of the most remarkable things that emerges when one engages in serious research about African Americans and African American families is the incredible resiliency shown by a people who have faced an unrelenting 400-plus years of systematic, institutionalized oppression. African American families have existed as social institutions despite being illegal (during slavery) and despite the adversity of a peonage/sharecropping plantation economy embedded within Jim Crow segregation. And underneath all of this success were African American men and women who managed to forge intimate connections, keep households together, and raise their children.

    Similarly, we have examples of individuals, such as Frederick Douglass, who were self-educated. Douglass became a major resistor to slavery. With the abolition of slavery, we have examples of African Americans such as Booker T. Washington, Ida B. Wells, George Washington Carver, and W.E.B. Du Bois, all of whom earned respect. And several were among the very first to earn advanced degrees, using their education to better the plight of African Americans, their families, and their communities. African Americans such as Booker T. Washington established colleges and universities that educated African American doctors, lawyers, dentists, engineers, and educators. History is full of examples of individual African Americans who have created successful professional and personal lives despite unimaginable barriers that were institutionalized across more than 400 years of second-class citizenship. These successes are to be applauded and celebrated.

    In post-civil rights America, as institutions have desegregated, African Americans have made progress in all spheres of life: politics, the military, business, sports, higher education, and professional occupations. For example, there are now six or seven African American CEOs of Fortune 500 companies. There are African Americans serving in the U.S. Congress; more than 1,700 African Americans earn a PhD each year; and the number of African American physicians, dentists, and architects totals more than 200,000 and grows each succeeding year. Yet we are reminded that in each of these institutions, African Americans are grossly underrepresented. For example, whereas African Americans make up approximately 13% of the U.S. population, they are only 4.5% of architects, 1% of the U.S. Senate, and 1.5% of the CEOs of Fortune 500 companies. In contrast, African American men make up 50% of all incarcerated individuals (men and women) in the United States. Forty-seven percent of African Americans receive some sort of welfare, 33% of African American children live in poverty, and more than half of all African Americans have no health insurance. The average life expectancy for African American men is 7.5 years shorter than that for their white male counterparts and some 12 years shorter than that for white women. African American women are now the fastest growing sector of the U.S. population heading to prison and the fastest growing sector of the U.S. population diagnosed with HIV/AIDS.

    This book is about hard social facts. The fact that despite the major advances in technology, medicine, and education, despite the growing U.S. economy, African Americans and their families continue to fall behind all other Americans except Native Americans on all of the social, economic, and political indicators we use to measure success and mobility. Not only are African Americans disproportionately likely to be poor, but among those who are professionals and affluent, they consistently fall behind similarly situated whites. For example, although there are six or seven African American CEOs at Fortune 500 companies, none of the companies headed by African Americans is represented in the top Fortune 25 firms. African Americans earning in the top 20% of the income distribution for all Americans have only one third the wealth of their white counterparts. And among African Americans in the U.S. Congress, only one is in the more prestigious Senate. This last point about the U.S. Senate has not changed since Reconstruction. The purpose of this book is to expose these inequalities that cross over so many different aspects of African American family life.

    This book is written from the analytical and theoretical perspective that the strongest predictor of gaps between African Americans and whites, be they gaps in marriage rates, health insurance, incarceration, or employment, are a result of structural impediments that continue to block full access to the opportunity structure (education, housing, employment). Furthermore, we note that African Americans continue to face discrimination, especially in areas such as mortgage lending and home ownership. We further argue that the 400-plus years of denied access has a cumulative effect for both whites and African Americans. African Americans cumulate disadvantages whereas whites cumulate advantage. (We will use examples to illustrate this that include the accumulation of wealth and the accumulation of privilege through systems such as legacy).

    This book is not an indictment of African Americans, their families, their communities, or their “culture.” We do not see African American civil society as being pathological, nor do we simply see all African Americans as “victims.” Although we acknowledge that individual African Americans make poor choices (as do individual whites, Asians, Hispanics, Native Americans, and others), the focus of our attention is in explaining the over-representation of African Americans who are in some type of trouble (in poverty, living with violence, incarcerated, living with poor health) and the underrepresentation of African Americans among the elite and affluent in the United States.

    We acknowledge the successes of African Americans and the strides individuals have made in the past 30 to 40 years—for example, African American males make up approximately 75% of all National Basketball Association (NBA) players. Yet there is only one NBA team that has a majority African American owner. We attribute most of these successes to individual actions, not the loosening up of social institutions. Thus, our argument focuses on the need for social institutions to open up fully so that they are accessible to all Americans. Our argument focuses on the need for each child in this country to be assured of adequate housing, a nutritious diet, and the kind of education that will enable him or her to seek any profession in adulthood that he or she might be interested in pursuing.

    The statistics and stories in this book are not what we would like to see; in fact, many statistics we report are grim. Yet we do not shy away from telling this story of social, economic, and political inequality. And, we will not stop telling this story until all Americans have equal access to the American Dream.

    As sociologists, we have become frustrated by what we see as two equally flawed standpoints from which to theorize about the African American family. The first approach interprets everything that is different and unique about the African American family as pathological. The second interprets these same qualities as strengths. Perhaps the most frequently cited example of this is teen pregnancy, but participation in the illegitimate economy is another example. Not every mode of behavior that is associated with white middle-class society, such as completing one's education, getting a job, and raising a family, is negative, even if it has developed out of a system of race and class privilege. We believe we can recognize the strengths of African American families and respect the choices of individuals while still making recommendations for improving the lives of African American men, women, and children without these suggestions being interpreted as racist or motivated out of a desire to “whiten” African Americans. Rather, what we propose is a scientific examination of African American families with the goal of identifying ways in which barriers to the opportunity structure have rendered many African American families living on the margins of society with less human capital; less financial stability; fewer freedoms; and shorter, less healthy lives.

    The organization of this book and the objectives that guide it can perhaps be best illustrated with a discussion about how we came to write this book. During 2003 and 2004, we conducted interviews with 40 African American men and women who were living with intimate partner violence. A cursory examination of the table of contents will reveal that we will devote an entire chapter to a discussion of violence in African American families. When we set out to do this research, our focus was on learning more about the process and outcomes of intimate partner violence. How is it, we wondered, that on any given day someone (usually a man) slaps, punches, hits, beats up, or even kills the person (usually a woman) whom he claims to love? This is the process. What are the effects of this kind of abuse on the individuals themselves? On their relationships? On their children? These are the outcomes. These topics will be addressed in great length in Chapter 5.

    When we entered into these interviews, we tried to prepare ourselves for what the interviews would expose us to: namely, a high rate of severe violence among people who lived and worked in our home community. And although a researcher can never adequately prepare him- or herself for these types of interviews, and we absolutely heard stories that to this day turn our stomachs, what we had not prepared for at all was the fact that interviews about intimate partner violence were really interviews about family life. Embedded and intertwined within the stories of horrific violence (one woman had survived a beating by a professional boxer who had killed an opponent in the ring a few weeks before we interviewed him) were stories about incarceration (mostly of the men, but a few of the women as well), health crises, unemployment, and most notably, poverty. Thus, we learned immediately that one cannot understand intimate partner violence as an isolated event without understanding its relationship to poverty, unemployment, health, and incarceration. This is especially the case in African American families, where these struggles are ever present for far too many. Thus, in preparing to write this book, we broadened our research to include these social issues, and intimate partner violence became the subject of only one chapter in this text, with the other issues also receiving the attention they deserved. By providing the reader with the most up-to-date and accurate research on African American families,1 we hope to contribute to a broader understanding for others, as well as provide a resource for policymakers who are addressing the issues we describe. Finally, because we are sociologists, we provide a structural framework for this information; it is a framework that recognizes individual choice but situates that choice within a context of patriarchy, class hierarchy, and racial domination.


    1. During the initial stages of this project, we, as well as the reviewers, examined texts on the African American family and found that the most recent publications were a decade old.


    As authors always note, the writing of a book, although an extremely solitary endeavor, could not be done without the help and advice of many people. We would like to publicly acknowledge those who have helped us with this book. Any and all errors that remain are ours alone.

    At Sage Publications, we would like to thank Jim Brace-Thompson for believing in our project when it was only a proposal and accepting our book into the Sage collection. We thank Cheri Dellelo for taking over midstream and helping us to see this project through to the end. Working with Sage has been so seamless, and we are grateful to the many people there who allowed us to write the book we wanted to write.

    Many people helped us to arrange the interviews with the men and women whose stories are the basis for this book: Joetta Shepherd and Kevin Sidden and their staff at Family Services of Winston-Salem, North Carolina; Pat Dean-McRay and her staff at the battered women's shelter in Winston-Salem, North Carolina; and Michele Valletta and her staff at Child Protective Services in Olmsted County, Minnesota. Michele carefully coordinated our schedule, thus allowing us to collect interviews with men and women with whom they work. We will always remember the cooperation and warm welcome the staff in Minnesota gave to us, especially our last meeting with them, which included “North Carolina BBQ.”

    To the highway patrolman in Zumbrota, Minnesota, Highway # 52, who rescued us at 3 a.m. after our rental car hit a raccoon. The 90 minutes we waited for a tow truck in the backseat of his cruiser proved more interesting than either of us could have imagined. Once we warmed up as he blasted the heat for us, he, too, told us story after story of battering in the all-white suburbs wherein judges, lawyers, and “city fathers” were engaging in some of the most brutal, but hidden, interpersonal violence that will never be told in a social behavioral scientist way. It will simply move from one generation to the next.

    We are grateful to Melissa Williams, Wake Forest University class of 2005, who took an interest in our project and conducted evaluation research for Family Services in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. That project became, at a later date, the subject for her honors thesis in sociology. Her work greatly informed our understanding of the efficacy of the batterer intervention program known as Time Out in Winston-Salem, North Carolina.

    We are grateful to Sarah Hazlegrove, who efficiently and tirelessly transcribed every interview. Despite less than ideal equipment and recording situations (babies were often crying, television sets were on), the work Sarah did for us was impeccable.

    We are grateful to Mrs. Linda McIntyre at the Mississippi State Penitentiary at Parchman for providing us with the chance to talk to the inmates there, especially Walter and Calvin, who were willing to share their stories of incarceration and the devastating impact it had on their families.

    We are grateful to Mr. Darryl Hunt, who has shared so much of his experience with the most atrocious part of the criminal justice system: the conviction and incarceration of innocent people. Mr. Hunt spent more than 18 years in state prison for a crime he did not commit. He has now dedicated his life to helping others like him—the many innocent men and women who rot inside our prisons. He does all of this work through his foundation, the Darryl Hunt Project for Freedom and Justice.

    We are grateful for the funding we received from the Social and Behavioral Sciences Research Fund at Wake Forest University. We thank Provost Mark Welker for this award and for all of his support for our project. We are also grateful to the American Sociological Association's Fund for the Advancement of the Discipline, which provided the funding for a good portion of this project.

    We are grateful to the anonymous reviewers who took the time and care to offer critiques of our work. This book is better because they challenged us to get it right.

    We thank those who have believed in us all along: Emily Kane, the late Senator Paul Wellstone, Cindy Gendrich, Bob and Diane Hattery, and so many friends and colleagues far too numerous to name here.

    Finally, to the men and women who so graciously opened up their lives to us. We are grateful. They shared the deepest, most intimate—and often painful—parts of their stories with us in offices, in their homes, in the hospital, and even from jail cells. Without you, there would be no book. Thanks!

    Our names are listed alphabetically. Our contributions to the book have been equal.

    AngelaHattery and EarlSmithWinston-Salem, North Carolina July 27, 2006

    Publisher's Acknowledgments

    Sage Publications gratefully acknowledges the contributions of the following reviewers:

    • Makungu M. Akinyela, PhD
    • Georgia State University
    • Pade Badru
    • University of Louisville
    • Michael C. Lambert, PhD
    • University of Missouri-Columbia
    • Richard Lewis Jr., PhD
    • University of Texas at San Antonio
    • Edward Opoku-Dapaah
    • Winston-Salem State University
    • Ron Stewart, PhD
    • Buffalo State College
  • Appendix A: Methods and Sample

    For a variety of reasons, we felt it was important to collect data in more than one part of the United States. The South has such a particular (and peculiar) sociopolitical economy that we chose the Midwest as a contrast site.1 The Midwest provides an interesting contrast site in many other ways as well. First, the midwestern states, and Minnesota in particular, have been at the forefront of domestic violence legislation and intervention. The county with which we partnered, Olmsted County, has been awarded several pilot grants from the Department of Justice to create innovate intervention and prevention approaches.2 Second, states like Minnesota were at the forefront of progressive laws regarding violence against women (rape and battering). For example, in Minnesota, domestic violence is defined in a feminist manner that can include women who batter men and same-sex battering. In North Carolina, however, as previously mentioned, domestic violence is defined in a gendered way: The only conceivable pattern is men beating up women. Thus, the charge retains the vestiges of patriarchy: “assault on a female.”

    Finally, it is important to note that because the African American population in Minnesota is very small (in this particular county, African Americans make up only 2.5% of the residents), and because most of the African Americans in this county have migrated there over the past generation, we restricted our sample in Minnesota to African Americans who had not ever lived in the South. This allowed us to test the southern subculture of violence theory.

    In any case, most of the battered women we interviewed in the Minnesota sample are largely still living with their batterers, whereas none of the battered women we interviewed in North Carolina were.3

    Minnesota Men and Women

    We partnered with the Domestic Violence Unit, which is administered within Child Protective Services (CPS). All of the men and women we interviewed were involved with social services, not the court system. Minnesota law requires that if there is a domestic violence incident that involves children “within sight or sound,” the responding officer is required to refer the couple to CPS. Among other things, this allowed us to generate a sample that included couples. We conducted 20 interviews in Minnesota with 10 men and 10 women. We conducted interviews with six intact couples (we interviewed both members of the couple, but for confidentiality and safety reasons, the interviews were conducted separately). The remaining interviews were conducted with one member of the couple, with the other member either refusing to be interviewed or being unavailable for interview (several of the partners had moved out of state or were in prison in other counties).

    Minnesota Women
    Andi—no partnerMary/DemetriusVeta/Wells
    Candi—no partnerStella/WillWanda/Chris
    Lara—no partnerTanya
    Minnesota Men
    Chris/WandaHank—no partnerWells/Veta
    Ellis—no partnerJon/KylieWill/Stella
    Ethan—no partnerRonny/TammyDemetrius/Mary
    North Carolina Men and Women

    All of the men interviewed in North Carolina (16) were participants in the Time Out Program, a batterers’ intervention program administered by Family Services, Inc., Forsyth County, North Carolina. All of the men who were recruited for interview had been court-ordered to this program as a result of being charged in the criminal justice system with “assault on a female,” which is the North Carolina charge applied to any battering behavior that a man commits against a woman. In all cases, the men were charged. They were all offered the opportunity to participate in Time Out (a 26-week program) rather than serve time in jail. Fourteen of the men interviewed were African American and two were white. All of the interviews were conducted by the authors and a former colleague, and all were taped and professionally transcribed.


    The women were recruited at a local battered women's shelter in the same midsized city in North Carolina. All of the women were living in the shelter at the time of the interview, and all of the interviews were conducted in the shelter by the authors and a former colleague. All of the interviews were taped and professionally transcribed. Of the 24 women interviewed in the shelter, 14 were African American and 10 were white. Many had children living with them in the shelter.

    Although the study design had originally called for interviewing partners, in the North Carolina sample, we were able to conduct interviews with only two couples: one white and one African American.

    North Carolina Women
    North Carolina Men
    Analytical Techniques

    The quantitative data used in this book all come from secondary data sets. In cases where we conducted unique analyses, standard bivariate statistics were produced using a standard statistical software package, SPSS. The qualitative data we include in this book were analyzed using a thematic coding scheme developed by Strauss and Corbin (1990). Interviews were taped and transcribed, and transcripts were analyzed by looking for themes (Strauss, 1990). Once these themes were identified, bivariate analyses allowed us to compare the ways that themes are correlated with independent variables such as gender, social class, age, region of the country, employment status, educational attainment, marital status, parental status, and so forth.


    1. This allowed us to test the southern subculture of violence theory, which will be discussed throughout the book.

    2. For example, Minnesota was among the first states to experiment with mandatory arrest laws.

    3. All of these sorts of variation in the sample will be addressed when appropriate. We would argue, however, that rather than making the sample less consistent, these variations contribute to a sample that better represents the experiences of women in the United States who are living with IPV. Thus, we think the sample is one of the strengths of the study.

    Appendix B: Marital History for People 15 Years and Over, by Age, Sex, Race, and Hispanic Origin, 2001

    Appendix C: International Infant Mortality Rates

    Rankings Infant mortality rate (all ascending)

    Appendix D: Infant Mortality Rates for Mississippi Counties

    Appendix E: Health Insurance Coverage by Race

    Appendix F: Costs for Medical Procedures without Medical Insurance

    Mammogram: $100–$150

    Angiogram: $2,500–$3,500

    Cardiac bypass: $20,000–$24,000

    Cataract removal: $1,800–$2,400

    Colonoscopy: $800–$1,100

    Hip replacement: $11,000–$18,000

    Knee replacement: $10,000–$12,500

    Prostate cancer treatment: $20,000–$22,000

    Radical mastectomy (breast cancer surgery) without reconstruction: $6,000–$10,000

    Appendix G: Educational Attainment by Race and Sex for Americans Age 15 and over

    Appendix H: Employed Persons by Occupation, Race, Hispanic or Latino Ethnicity, and Sex

    Appendix I: Number of State, Federal, and Privately Operated Correctional Facilities, 2000

    Appendix J: Probability of Incarceration

    Probability of Incarceration for Women
    11 out of every 1,000 women will be incarcerated in their lifetimes:
    5 out of every 1,000 white women
    36 out of every 1,000 African American women
    Probability of Incarceration for Men
    90 out of every 1,000 men will be incarcerated in their lifetimes:
    44 out of every 1,000 white men
    285 out of every 1,000 African American men
    SOURCE: Harrison and Beck (2004).

    Appendix K: Number of Sentenced Prisoners under State or Federal Jurisdiction per 100,000 Residents, by Gender, Race, Hispanic Origin, and Age, 2003

    Appendix L: Counties with 21% or More of Their Population Incarcerated


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    About the Authors

    Angela J. Hattery, PhD, holds the Zachary T. Smith Reynolds Associate Professorship in Sociology and Women & Gender Studies at Wake Forest University. She completed her BA at Carleton College and her MS and PhD at the University of Wisconsin-Madison before joining the faculty of Wake Forest in 1998. Her research focuses on social stratification, gender, family, and race. She is the author of numerous articles, book chapters, and books, including another Sage book, Women, Work, and Family: Balancing and Weaving (2001). Her forthcoming book Violence in Intimate Partner Relationships will appear in 2007.

    Earl Smith, PhD, is Professor of Sociology and the Rubin Distinguished Professor of American Ethnic Studies at Wake Forest University. He is the Director of the Wake Forest University American Ethnic Studies Program. Dr. Smith was the Chairperson of the Department of Sociology, Wake Forest University, from 1997–2005. Prior to his appointment at Wake Forest University, Professor Smith was the Dean, Division of Social Science at Pacific Lutheran University (PLU) in Tacoma, Washington. He also served as Chairperson of the Department of Sociology at PLU. Professor Smith has numerous publications (books, articles, book chapters, etc.) in the area of professions, social stratification, family, and urban sociology, and he has published extensively in the area of the sociology of sport. His most recent book, Race, Sport and the American Dream, will be published by Carolina Academic Press in early 2007.

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